Abdellatif Kechiche returns with another heady, alluring sensory epic, but it lacks the narrative and emotional heft of his best work.
Late in “Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno,” two characters make plans for a quiet, home-cooked pasta dinner. Just tomatoes, basil and garlic for the sauce, slow-cooked until rich and integrated in flavor: It’s critical, they agree, that it takes its time to simmer. Abdellatif Kechiche’s filmmaking often follows a similar recipe of everyday components turned flavorfully complex with the patient investment of time: It’s how his Palme d’Or-winning “Blue is the Warmest Color” turned an ostensibly simple story of first love and heartbreak into a human odyssey of intricate interior detail. Another gorgeous three-hour study of young, attractively housed hearts in often turbulent motion, “Mektoub” is a frequently seductive sensory epic of equivalent ambition, yet despite its woozily pleasurable set pieces, the fraught emotions binding them are less urgent, and the perspective of its protagonist far less immediate.
Somehow Kechiche — loosely adapting the novel “La blessure, la vraie” by French writer François Bégaudeau, who also provided the inspiration for Laurent Cantet’s “The Class” — hasn’t quite nailed the cooking time on “Mektoub,” the full title of which suggests we’re only getting started on this particular story universe. Where Kechiche’s last feature perfectly used its supersized running time to map the extensive internal transformation of an unformed girl growing into adulthood, the 186-minute duration of his latest feels a bit more ostentatiously stretched — with one lengthy, thrilling-to-grueling nightclub sequence, in particular, taking the film into the perverse realm of endurance cinema. The final cut reportedly arrives in Venice so fresh as to be practically bleeding; another pass through the editing suite, addressing not so much its overall length as its rhythmic lulls and lapses, could significantly enhance the distribution prospects of a film with much sensual delight to offer.
Tonally and sociologically, “Blue is the Warmest Color” is not quite as apt a point of comparison for “Mektoub” as Kechiche’s “The Secret of the Grain” — the international title of which, “Couscous,” gets a sly namecheck in the very first scene. As in that 2007 Venice prizewinner, we’re immersed here in the garrulous, family-first Franco-Tunisian community of Sete on France’s southern coast, where handsome, diffident young film buff Amin (newcomer Shaïn Boumédine, a winsome find) has returned for the summer after quitting his medicine studies in Paris to pursue a screenwriting career. The year is 1994 — as the soundtrack’s regular, pumping infusion of Eurodance staples, from Dr. Alban to Culture Beat, keeps reminding us — so Amin may not be a directly contemporary alter ego for Kechiche himself, but the film assumes his gaze with patently nostalgic affection.
Amin’s happy to spend the summer writing, dabbling in photography and poring over silent cinema classics on VHS, but his clucking, kindly mother (Kechiche’s sister Delinda, the film’s bastion of earthy warmth) is having none of it. To the beaches and bars he is sent, all but implored to live it up. With his restless, womanizing cousin Tony (Salim Kechiouche) as his wingman, Amin falls into a relaxed routine of sunbathing, drinking, partying and a whole lot of talking — with the extended family’s couscous restaurant, as in “The Secret of the Grain,” a continual hub of the action. Though Tony’s character, a thinly defined good-time-guy stereotype, remains secondary, the high-turnover carousel of his love life accounts for much of the film’s narrative motion: Among his key conquests are Charlotte (Alexia Chardard), an emotionally vulnerable tourist who invests too deeply in their fling, and local dairy farm worker Ophélie (Ophélie Bau, another appealing discovery), a close friend of Amin’s who’s merely biding her time until her presumed fiancé returns from the army.
Tony’s exploits serve chiefly to accentuate Amin’s comparative romantic awkwardness with women. Though he offers a soft, sturdy shoulder for female acquaintances to cry on, his general uncertainy of himself in most departments is plain for all to see. That makes him a naturally sympathetic anchor for the film, but not a terribly compelling one: Kechiche’s script, co-written with regular collaborator Ghalya Lacroix, keeps him a largely passive presence throughout, his innermost ideas and urges unknown to the audience, with only the suggestion of change in his future. (What the prospective “Canto Due” might have in store for him, after an open-ended but hardly sequel-baiting resolution, is anyone’s guess, given how far the film has already drifted from its source material.)
There are whispers of a possible coming-out arc here, but what’s most surprising about “Mektoub” is how conservative its interest in sexuality actually is. Kechiche wallows in visual delectation of the body, indulging in more worshipful closeups of well-turned female derrieres in wispy booty shorts than you can shake any kind of stick at. Yet beyond a pleasingly frank, messy introductory sex scene between Tony and Ophélie (bizarrely scored to Neil Diamond’s “Shilo,” of all lovemaking jams), the film’s carnality goes no deeper than this. Perhaps in doubled-down defiance of the critics who accused “Blue is the Warmest Color” of taking a masculine perspective on feminine desire, Kechiche and cinematographer Marco Graziaplena are unapologetically biased in their scrutiny of the female form, which works wittily in some scenes as a reflection of even the adult man’s most juvenile sensual awareness.
The longer this waist-level looking persists, however, the less playful it becomes, however alluringly fluid Graziaplena’s pastel-toned lensing. At points, “Mektoub” takes on a kind of cinematic leer that’s inconsistent with the otherwise empathetic, thoughtful characterization of its female ensemble — whose generation-crossing scenes together, as they mutually gossip, self-analyze and shoot the sea breeze, are the film’s spikiest and most authentic. When the younger women dance together, Kechiche captures an exhilarating sense of self-sustaining chemistry between them: Finally indifferent to the desires of men, they’re turned on and turned up by the sheer joy of their solidarity, give or take a few happy-hour cocktails. The camera, dipping endlessly to crotch height, never quite follows this subtly inverted point of view.
“Mektoub My Love: Canto Uno” is most consistently rewarding, then, when it revels in simple pleasures of physical movement and nourishment, be it the drunken high of a barroom shimmy or the warm, slurpy comforts of shellfish-tangled spaghetti on the beach. (Kechiche’s status as our foremost cinematic fetishist of eating remains deliciously undimmed.) It achieves a note of more austere poetry, meanwhile, in a rivetingly extended, documentary-style sequence of lamb birthing that briefly cleanses “Mektoub” — which translates, somewhat unilluminatingly, as “destiny” — of its exhausting whirl of human chaos. A genuine lust for life colours Kechiche’s filmmaking; in this case, his joie de vivre could stand to be a tiny bit more selective.